It would probably count as a major shock if the two heavyweights of European football failed to progress from this group but, with a home crowd roaring them on, would it be wise to write off all hopes of an upset from the fiercely patriotic Ukrainian hosts?
Reason to Root: Are you kidding me? To name but a few: The Pilgrim Fathers, Thomas Paine, Norman Rockwell, Charlie Chaplin, Cary Grant, George Lucas – the English gave them all to you! Don’t you owe them a little love in return?
Likely to Reach: Quarter Finals
It’s the easiest thing in the world to predict what England will do when they reach the Finals of any major tournament: they’ll let you down. The only question is when. If the England football team was a woman, it would probably be a lot like Kim Kardashian. First they draw you in with their superficial charm and beauty, everything looks nicely promising for a week or two, then slowly they expose their lack of class. From there it’s only a matter of time until their own weaknesses and shortcomings smash your heart into a million tiny pieces. But then, a little time passes, and they promise that they’ve changed – they’ll never do it again, so two years later they say: “Trust us… this time it’ll be different, we promise”. And you trust them. And they do it again. Grrr.
Superstar: Ashley Young (Manchester United)
Normally Wayne Rooney would be an automatic selection in this category but because he’s suspended for two of the three first-round matches, the accolade goes instead to his United team-mate Young. The rate at which this jet-heeled winger has developed is probably surprising to everybody except the all-knowing Sir Alex Ferguson. When he left Aston Villa he was still on the raw side of brilliance, yet now – less than 12 months later – he looks more comfortable in an England shirt than most of the elder statesmen that surround him. His pace will create opportunities, and although his preference is for a right-footed finish, he’s also dangerously comfortable when shooting with his left.
Rising Star: Danny Welbeck (Manchester United)
Rooney’s suspension will give Welbeck the opportunity to take centre stage as England’s most advanced attacking option, and there’s every reason to be confident that he’ll make the most of it. In contrast to the way that they’ve handled Young, the Manchester United backroom have been very careful in nursing Welbeck’s career along, and Euro 2012 could well be the occasion where he finally rips off the kid gloves and shows the world what he’s really all about.
Tick, Tick, Boom: John Terry (Chelsea)
Over the past few seasons Terry’s antics both on and off the field have seen him become by far the most controversial character in English football. Sadly it seems his maturity clock is set backwards so that as he gets older, the likelihood of him doing something stupid increases accordingly – a matter which he capably demonstrated by being needlessly red-carded during the Champions League semi-final back in April.
Reason to Root: I’m struggling here. Didn’t the French send the Statue of Liberty over as a gift? Imagine the shipping charge on that! I mean seriously, the least you can do in return is to cheer them on in Euro 2012.
Likely to Reach: Quarter Finals
If England are Kim Kardashian, then France are without a doubt Charlie Sheen. They arrived at the 2010 World Cup Finals as one of the tournament’s clear favourites, and then almost upon touching South African soil they imploded in a series of ill-timed battles fought against demons (mainly Patrice Evra) that appeared from within. That fiasco led to a wholesale clearance being initiated by manager Laurent Blanc, so internal discipline may be a little stronger this time around, but don’t count on it. More than likely time will once again prove that the flair, passion, and unpredictability which has characterized French sport for so many years can be as much of a curse as it can be a blessing.
Superstar: Franck Ribery (Bayern Munich)
When you hear French football legend Zinedine Zidane describe a player as being the “jewel of French football” then it’s probably wise to sit up and take note. Many players might struggle to live up to that kind of tag, but Ribery simply relishes it. He’s fast, great with the ball at his feet, an outstanding passer of the ball, in fact his game is so good that it would take way too long to list all of his qualities, so instead I shall give an account of his weaknesses. He doesn’t have any.
Rising Star: Yann M’Vila (Rennes)
As a defensive midfielder, M’Vila is one of those players who can easily have an excellent game without ever drawing a great deal of attention to himself. His work ethic combined with sturdy tackling and an ability to use the ball wisely have led to comparisons with former Les Bleus great Patrick Vieira, and although it’s still a little early to see whether or not he’ll ever even come close to being that good, the initial indications are promising enough.
Tick, Tick, Boom: France (France)
It’s France! Their Gallic ‘flair’ could see any one of them lose the plot at any given moment. Who would have thought that ‘Zizou’ would have nutted Marco Materazzi during the World Cup Final in 2006? Enough said.
Reason to Root: None to speak of. It’s notoriously difficult to be excited by Sweden. Try it for yourself and then see if you think I’m exaggerating.
Likely to Reach: Group Stage
The trouble with Sweden is that you can never write them off entirely. Until now. And to be perfectly honest, even when they were half-decent in the days of Henrik Larsson and Freddie Ljungberg, they never lived up to expectations whenever it came to the crunch in major competitions. If you want an analogy, think of an Ikea wardrobe that’s been assembled by a 6-year-old girl. Most of the bits are probably in vaguely the right place, and it perhaps appears as being quite sturdy, but as soon as you apply any pressure, well… you can guess the rest.
Superstar: Zlatan Ibrahimovic (Milan)
Arguably the most frustratingly inconsistent sportsman to be found anywhere on the map of the entire Cosmos for the past 3 aeons, if Ibrahimovic is ever going to convince people that he’s capable of more than the occasional glimpse of brilliance, then this will probably be his last chance to do so on an international stage. “If only he cared,” they all say, “he could be world class!” Well sadly it appears that he doesn’t, so he probably never will be. In fact, now that I come to think of it, I want to take a mulligan here. I meant to say Sebastian Larsson (Sunderland).
Rising Star: Martin Olsson (Blackburn)
In terms of approaching talent, I’m afraid to say that the Swedish landscape looks rather bleak, and so it’s much to his credit that Olsson is selected for this category on merit rather than by default. Expect a big tournament from the 22-year-old defender, as he has already indicated his intention to leave Ewood Park before the start of next season, and sources say that Champions League winners Chelsea will be keeping very close tabs on his performances during the Euros.
Tick, Tick, Boom: Zlatan Ibrahimovic (Milan)
When ABBA fell apart in the early 80s it was largely because the good-looking woman ditched the geeky long-haired keyboard player. Effectively he went into a bit of a sulk, distanced himself from the others, and became completely unproductive. Now, maybe that’s just a Swedish thing, because although I wish to emphasise that it would be mere speculation to suggest that Zlatan’s ever been dumped by anybody out of ABBA, he definitely shares the habit of sulking, completely isolating himself, and making no contribution whatsoever other than that of becoming a chippy, chatty, not-quite sitting target for referees.
Reason to Root: These Ukrainians are a fiercely proud and patriotic bunch who don’t mind deciding their democratic affairs with a good old-fashioned punch-up in Parliament. And they’re co-hosts of this summer’s tournament. What’s not to like?
Likely to Reach: Group Stage
There’s not a great deal of talent buried within the present Ukraine squad, and so it’s difficult to make a case for them progressing into the quarter finals. That said, they’re effectively the hometown team, and so their opponents will have to cope with what will undoubtedly be a fairly hostile reception when they walk out to do battle with Oleg Blokhin’s men.
Superstar: Andriy Shevchenko (Dynamo Kiev)
At 35 it’s unlikely that Shevchenko’s going to light many fires this summer, but even so, only a fool would entirely overlook the potential threat that’s posed by a man who can claim to be second on the all-time scoring list for a club so illustrious as Milan. On top of that, Sheva’s last two seasons at Kiev have indicated that his fire remains far from being entirely extinguished as he has returned 22 goals in his previous 54 appearances for the club.
Rising Star: Yevhen Khaceridi (Dynamo Kiev)
At 6’ 6” it’s safe to say that central defender Khaceridi is not going to come second in many aerial contests this summer. However, the 24-year-old brings much more than a physical presence to the table, and his deceptive speed may well be suited to the bustling pace of the English Premier League. A few decent performances in Euro 2012 and Khaceridi could well find himself heading West.
Tick, Tick, Boom: Olexander Kucher (Shakhtar Donetsk)
In his last four appearances for the Ukraine, Kucher has managed to collect two yellow cards and one red. The only thing that could maybe make him even more of a disciplinary liability is the possibility that one day he might play in a passion-fuelled, fever-pitched major international tournament that’s staged in his own country.
Who do you like in Group D? Be sure to stay tuned, as later this week, we will be posting our full bracket predictions, all the way down to a winner!